South Africa is a well-known country around the world that is often studied by political scientists because of its complicated history under apartheid and segregation and its quick democratic transition. In 1994, democracy prevailed over corruption, segregation, and racism, and South Africa was set to become a thriving and vibrant democracy. This vision of the future was inclusionary, fair, well-developed, and just, but inevitably corruption, rent-seeking, and clientelistic relationships took control and an inclusionary democracy was put on the back burner. Currently, the Freedom House grades South Africa at 79 out of 100 on its freedom scale, and the World Bank rates South Africa a -.71 stability on a scale that ranges from -2.5 to 2.5. Though both of these numbers could be far worse, political instability in South Africa has contributed to how citizens react and participate in democracy. This lack of stability discourages citizens from participating in the most basic forms, which includes voting, and thus eliminates any chance of participation from citizens on a greater scale. Thus begins the continuous cycle of corruption and democratic backsliding being ignored because political participation is extremely low.
For background, when the African National Congress, the oldest liberation movement in Africa, won the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, it was an impressive victory for democracy and the end of apartheid. This election marked the beginning of fair and free elections for all South Africans despite race, ethnicity, or gender, and inspired the birth of the South African Constitution which was later signed into effect in 1996. The constitution and the start of free and fair elections was a monumental moment in South African history and marked the beginning of free suffrage and equality in a country that was previously riddled with segregation, racism, and injustice. At least, this is what most people assumed would happen. Instead, over twenty-five years later, South African citizens still face evident discrimination, lack proper representation, continue to live in unfair conditions, and tend to not be politically active. Why is this the case?
Many fingers have been pointed at the ANC for the lack of active democratization within the country since the 1990s, but to what extent can one political party be blamed? For years the ANC has been riddled with corruption as a number of political leaders used informal connections and backroads to achieve personal goals and ignore the needs of the country and its people, but the citizens of South Africa have also played a role in this lack of democratization and evident democratic backsliding. A large part of the constitution was creating a participatory government in which universal suffrage and government accountability were pillars of the government, but this requires the citizens to actively participate. The people have to want to be part of the democracy, whether that is voting, discussing, or fighting for what they believe in. So while the ANC and other political parties are largely responsible for the decline of South Africa’s democracy in a post-apartheid world, the people of South Africa must also take some of this responsibility.
So, while I could try to explain the various ways that government corruption has led to the decline of democracy in South Africa, I will instead point to political participation in the form of voter turnout, or lack thereof, as a mechanism of democratic backsliding in South Africa. In 1994, 86.4% of eligible citizens voted in the general elections. Over eighteen million people stood in line for days to cast their votes. This was an unprecedented turnout and showed that the citizens of South Africa were more than ready to participate in the democracy that was newly born. In the years following, voter turnout steadily declined, meaning more and more people felt unmotivated and unwilling to vote. In 1999, voter turnout stood at 88%, in 2004 it stood at 76%, and in 2019 voter turnout stood at 66%. Though these numbers may seem insignificant, voter turnout is instrumental in holding politicians accountable for their actions, ensuring that the policies that are enacted reflect what the people want, and ensuring that democracy does not backslide into an autocracy or anarchy. Not only does the lower voter turnout affect policy, but it also means that the people who are voting, most of which belong to similar demographic groups, are more likely to see their needs met, while those who do not vote are left out of policy decisions.
Because the people aren’t voting, politicians have not been held accountable for their actions, and the policies they have put into place have been born out of corrupt and selfish motivations. This can be seen in a number of different provinces across the country, including Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay. In Nelson Mandela Bay 72,000 people voted in the election of December 2000. This is about 62% of the population. In Cape Town, 2 million people voted in the election in December of 2000. This is about 50% of the population. In Cape Town, while there is still a great deal of corruption, higher-class people live in better conditions and have their voices heard by politicians. In Nelson Mandela Bay, where the population is primarily black, the citizens live in worse conditions, are underrepresented in politics, and are essentially left on their own to figure everything out. In areas where there are fewer voters, living conditions are worse, politicians are not inclined to listen to demands, and the people are left to fend for themselves. This is not a reflection of the inclusive, beneficial, and fair democracy that was intended for South Africa. If the people want to see a change, they need to be more involved in the political processes. They can no longer sit idly by and watch as politicians make decisions that negatively affect them.
The people of South Africa had the opportunity to change their country according to their needs and in their favor, but by failing to vote, they have ensured that corrupt politicians can act in any way they choose, which has led to a number of the policy issues, poor living conditions, and inevitable democratic backsliding. From the fair and equitable image of democracy in 1994 to the now more corrupt and more unjust democracy that exists in South Africa, the people have lost their voice.
Democracy is more than voting for a representative and deciding who can or can not hold power within a country. Elections are not a magic fix for perpetual racism, segregation, and corruption. It involves collective action, active participation, protest, and active discussion among politicians and citizens. This is absent in South Africa. Voting and other forms of political participation have been on the decline since the first fully democratic election in 1994, and this has allowed politicians free range to the country. Lack of participation is a sign of democratic backsliding and begs the question of how such a vibrant and youthful democracy has already begun its descent into chaos. In order for democratic backsliding caused by rapid corruption and blatant disregard for human rights to stop and for South Africa’s vibrant and inclusive democracy to be restored, the people must participate.